Lana Barhum, freelance writer, has lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008. She uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness.
People who have serious, chronic health conditions are two to three times more likely to develop anxiety and/or depression. The difficulty of coping with chronic illness is further complicated by treatments that may trigger psychological symptoms, including anxiety. And because it is difficult to know whether anxiety symptoms are due to a physical condition or an anxiety disorder, anxiety disorders are often undiagnosed and untreated.
How anxiety and chronic illness coexist
Change is often scary, and being diagnosed with a chronic illness can be especially daunting. After all, chronic illness may limit mobility and independence, and could make it impossible to do many things you enjoyed before. Further, it may chip away at your dreams and make you feel alone and helpless. All these changes and fears can easily lead to feelings of anxiety and despair. To add to this, the physical effects of chronic illness and the side effects of medications used to treat them may also give rise to anxious feelings. And if you have had a previous history of anxiety, panic attacks, and/or depression, your risk is even greater for developing an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety about quality of life with chronic illness is normal, and will come and go as you learn to adjust to the new reality. But if anxious feelings linger and interfere with the ability to function, professional help should be sought.
Coping with chronic illness anxiety
If you are a person who suffers from a chronic illness and anxiety, it may seem that you have been dealt two pretty difficult blows. But you are not alone in dealing with this combination.
In my own experience with chronic illness, I have coped with panic attacks and general anxiety. Like so many, I know what it is like to feel like you have no control and bad things can happen at any moment. When you have a disease with no cure, anxiety could creep up on you without warning.
You worry about things getting worse, and if they do, who will care for you and everyone who needs you? You worry about your financial situation and keeping a roof over your children's heads, and being sick and tired all the time just seems to make all those fears worse. It could be pretty scary—but it doesn’t have to be.
Here are some things that have helped me cope with anxiety over the years. I hope you can apply some, or all, to your unique situation:
I do my research. Anxiety grows when we let our imaginations run amuck with frightening ideas about what we don’t know or understand. Learning more about my illness has empowered me to make better decisions about my health and treatment options, and has lessened my anxiety about my rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.
I am wary of the Internet. The Internet is like the Wild West when it comes to the vast amount of information available about chronic illnesses. Not all of the information is credible and there are many stories of worst-case scenarios. Tales of endless suffering are extremes that are not the norm and serve no purpose but to worsen fears. I may not know if things will get better or worse for me, but I do know that the extremes likely don’t apply to my situation.
I found a doctor I can trust. You need a doctor whom you can trust and easily communicate with, since you will be spending a lot of time at your doctor's office seeking treatments and answers. After a couple of bad experiences, I was lucky to find a doctor who listens to my concerns and puts me at ease.
I seek support. None of us can do this alone. Friends and family don’t always understand, or we may not have a lot of people we can count on. You can meet other people with chronic illness online or in local support groups. It has been a blessing to be able to talk to others who understand my struggles. I have also learned to cope and manage anxiety by seeing others do it.
I write. Writing has been a great way to rid myself of anxiety, fears, and stress. You could start a blog, write in a journal, or share about your anxiety in an online support group forum. Writing about your concerns and worries is so much better than stressing about what you have little control over.
I choose a normal life. Being chronically ill is only one small part of my life. I don’t have to continually focus on researching, doctor visits, and talking about my health. I can take breaks, especially on the days when I feel better, stronger, and somewhat normal. I can focus on my hobbies, hang out with my kids or a friend, and enjoy nature. It is okay and healthy to prioritize and think about other things sometimes.
I seek acceptance. After eight years of living with chronic illness, I accept that I must face my fears because allowing anxiety to overwhelm me will only make my health worse. Acceptance means I treat myself well and adapt to my situation no matter what develops. I don’t know what the future holds, but who does? If you spend all your time worrying, you will miss out on the good and precious things that are happening right now.
Don't ignore anxiety
Anxiety should not be ignored. Anxiety worsens chronic illness and illness can worsen anxiety. And living with chronic illness means facing challenges and a whole lot of uncertainty. Acknowledge these truths and give your mental health the same priority you give your physical health. By managing both, you can improve your overall health, benefit from a better quality of life, and begin to move forward with confidence toward the future.
What helps you deal with anxiety? Share your thoughts with our UpWell community by adding a comment.